Born: May 29th, 1934
Died: November 4th, 2023
Marina Cicogna, an Italian countess who became her country’s first major female film producer, guiding to the screen celebrated films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Zeffirelli and Elio Petri, died on November 4th at her home in Rome. She was 89. Her death was announced by La Biennale di Venezia, the organiser of the Venice Film Festival.
Rising to prominence in an era when the only female names on film posters were often those of actresses, Cicogna became one of the most powerful women in European cinema, as a producer and distributor.
She started from a lofty perch. Her maternal grandfather, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, was an industrialist and statesman who served in various government roles, including as Italy’s minister of finance under Benito Mussolini. He also founded the Venice Film Festival. In the mid-1960s, when Cicogna was in her early 30s, she and her brother Bino took control of her family’s production and distribution company, Euro International Films.
Even so, she faced challenges: working with imperious male auteurs; earning the respect of the country’s left-leaning cultural leaders despite her titled upbringing; and openly dating women as well as men at a time when such topics were rarely discussed in public by figures of authority. Nor was her path as a woman always easy. “At the time I didn’t think about it,” she said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter Roma this year. “But at the end of the day, yes, the intention to put you down was there, definitely.”
Among the prominent films she produced or distributed were: Medea (1969), Pasolini’s hypnotic reimagining of the Euripides tragedy, starring opera singer Maria Callas; Teorema (1968), also directed by Pasolini, in which Terence Stamp plays an enigmatic stranger who seduces, one by one, members of a wealthy family in Milan; Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972), Zeffirelli’s lush retelling of the life of St Francis of Assisi; and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Petri’s Kafkaesque thriller, which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1971.
Cicogna also had three films at the 1967 Venice Film Festival, including Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as a Paris housewife who secretly works at a bordello, which won the festival’s highest prize, the Golden Lion. In addition, she put her stamp on the proceedings by throwing a lavish party that became festival lore. “I didn’t give a big ball, but rather said that everyone could dress as they wanted, as long as they were in white and yellow or white and gold,” Cicogna said in a 2013 interview with T, the New York Times’s style magazine. “I sent two small Learjets, one to Corsica to pick up Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the other to Rome to pick up Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim.”
Such obvious displays of wealth would go out of fashion following the leftist student uprisings in Europe in 1968. “You couldn’t have a big party without hurting people’s feelings,” she continued. “You couldn’t go around with a Rolls-Royce without being thrown eggs at.”
Countess Marina Cicogna Mozzoni Volpi di Misurata was born May 29th, 1934, in Rome, the daughter of Count Cesare Cicogna Mozzoni, a banker, and Countess Annamaria Volpi di Misurata, who purchased Euro International Films, ultimately handing control over to her children.
Growing up, Cicogna was a cinema lover who mingled among the children of David O Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind, and other film heavyweights at the Venice festival.
After an education in Italy, she enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she roomed with Barbara Warner, whose father was Hollywood film mogul Jack Warner. During a school break, Barbara Warner invited her to California. “I never went back,” Cicogna told T. “I stayed for three months in California at the Warners’.”
She later studied photography in the United States, brokering her platinum connections to shoot luminaries like Ezra Pound and Marilyn Monroe in candid moments. Her early forays into the film business included distributing a 1967 West German film, Helga. “It was the first time you saw a birth, a woman producing a child, on film,” she told T. “I decided we should publicise it. We put ambulances at the exit of the film, saying that people would faint when they saw that.”
She was at times linked romantically with the likes of Warren Beatty and Alain Delon, but she also spent decades in a relationship with Florinda Bolkan, a Brazilian model and actress.
After they split, she began a long relationship with Benedetta Gardona, a woman more than two decades her junior, whom Cicogna legally adopted for financial reasons. Gardona remained her companion until Cicogna’s death.
In a 2017 video interview, she expressed regret that she had not remained in the film business. “If I had to look back, I should have never stopped producing, although Italian cinematography has not been the same since. It’s not so great,” she said. “I am also a person who is very torn between the European rather lazy aesthetic way of life and the American more creative, more active way of life. I’ve been more European than active. I haven’t done as much as I should have done. But I can’t say I’m sorry. That’s the way it was, and that’s it.”
- This article originally appeared in the New York Times.